This little book has all the makings of a real blockbuster for what the author describes as the "liberated" seminaries and church bureaucracies of the Reformed and Lutheran wings of the Protestant church. It should be read by every member of the clergy and every lay person who has his or her head above the sand trap. The author is a long standing professor at The Theological School, Drew University and a major theological shaker and mover in the United Methodist Church. He describes himself as part of a generation of liberated theologians who consisted mostly of novelty-fixated nineteen sixties revolutionaries who applied their radical chic imaginations to everything that seemed to them slightly old or dated. He confesses his generation's modern chauvinism in assuming that newer is better and older is worse.
It appears that Oden has come to his senses on a variety of issues, including his rejection of the various forms of the pseudoscientific methodology of Biblical studies known generically as higher criticism, which he points out, "…nonchalantly rape the text," because, "they are ideologically tilted, anti religiously biased, and historically ignorant." He regrets that he was formerly taken in by the "radical demythologizing biblical criticism of Rudolf Bultmann," and as a result had tried for years "to read the New Testament without the premises of incarnation and resurrection." He seeks a return to the classic Protestant Bible interpretation of writers such as Martin Chemnitz, John Quenstedt, and Johann Gerhard. One can only hope that there is sufficient grace in the hearts of his readers to forgive him for including Charles G. Finney among that illustrious band.
He announces that he has gone AWOL from the whole "…liberal tradition (especially in its pacifist, existentialist, psychoanalytic, and quasi-Marxist mutations)." He has no kind words for the "neopagan feminists and permissive amoralists and quasi-Marxist liberators and justification-by-equality syncretists," who want to dismantle, disfigure, or otherwise "improve" orthodox confessions of faith.
Oden is engaged in a requiem, a simultaneous laying to rest and celebration of the passing of the culture of modernity and his own liberation from it. His is "…essentially a lament for a friend, not a diatribe against an enemy." He obviously finds it difficult to denounce what he was at one time so emphatic a part of and for which he was partially responsible, but he stands up like a man and takes whatever blame is due him for his past intellectual intoxication.
His heart goes out to long-suffering believers who may sit in the pews and have to suffer "…the ideological malarkey coming out of the mouths of their ordained ministers." He wants them to realize that what is happening in the pulpit is often a diluted trace of what has been transpiring for some decades in the theological seminaries. Likewise, parishioners must understand that their perception of democratic gridlock in regional and national assemblies and their own powerlessness to influence the ruling elites who have the churches by the throat stems from the "… eccentric wild pockets of free-floating church bureaucrats and idealists who seem accountable to no one." To counter the resultant feeling of impotency and impossibility to effect a return to classic Christianity, Oden calls upon pastors who know what is going on in the church to edify their people with evidence that: (1) liberated theology is dead and doesn't know it and (2) there is a resurgence of the genuine Reformation spirit in evangelical churches (orthodox Lutheran, included) which is being nurtured by those who have survived faith-killing educations in the liberated seminaries and want to lead the people out of the fleshpots of the moribund mainline denominations. The only hooker in this is that so few pastors find what has been happening in their seminaries and denominational headquarters of much relevancy in their pastoral practice as they go around their congregations "doing theology", or, as it is called in the aviation business, "flying by the seat of your pants."
Oden describes the "liberated" bureaucrats and seminary elites as those who view themselves as "doctrinally imaginative, liturgically experimental, disciplinarily nonjudgmental, politically correct, multiculturally tolerant, morally broad-minded, sexually lenient, permissive, and uninhibited."
Oden uses the story of the recent Re-imagining Conference in Minneapolis as an example of bureaucratic misjudgment. Funded by the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., the United Methodists, the United Church of Christ, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the conference was the occasion taken by a clutch of radical ultrafeminists and lesbians to push their weird notion of the she god Sophia to the exclusion of Jesus Christ as Son of God. It seems that the widespread practice of the ordination of women into the ministry came along with the ascendancy of theological liberation. It should come as no surprise to any but the liberated ones that some of the "ladies" have turned nasty and want to put dead (or live) white men in the place where they belong-which is under a long spiked heel.
The author views the prognosis at the seminary level as "dismal" and is of the view that any meaningful reform would take decades to take effect because of the built-in mechanisms for self-perpetuation and the near impossibility of replacing the current inhabitants with a body of classical Christians. He takes pains to warn prospective seminarians of what they will likely face in an environment where "fundamentalists" are in bad odor and Bible believers are called "literalists" and worse. He warns that a student who comes with anything like an orthodox faith will have to survive Biblical studies that represent "…a deconstruction of patriarchal texts and traditions," and suffer through the study of liturgy that "…becomes an experiment in color, balloons, poetry, and freedom."
Oden's treatment of the never-ending attempt to legitimize open homosexual practice and welcome it into the ordained ministry is instructive. His brief critique of the shoddy attempts to skew rational Biblical interpretation in favor of unbridled "Christian" permissiveness for homoerotic behavior should make the guilty theologians blush, and would if they still had the ability to feel guilt. As E. Michael Jones points out in, John Cardinal Krol and the Cultural Revolution, it was not necessary to crassly advocate immoral propositions for the culture to embrace them: all that was necessary was to sweep aside moral restraints and let human nature slide by gravity down the slippery slope.
So what is likely to result from Oden's fragging of the liberated camp? It is likely that they will be much disquieted but little changed by his ousting them from their closet-only a few old sots really sober up. The laity has been duped and doped by the products spilled out by the seminaries and the hypocritical blather dumped on them by higher headquarters. They may from time to time get into the hand ringing mode and wail, "Who stole our church?", but by and large they have been emasculated by the organizational structures in the control of those who have become their masters. A vigilant, informed, and caring remnant of ordained ministry could lead a movement of reformation and renewal, but too many have given up on their denominations and are running their congregations as though they were the kings of secure little island kingdoms where "doing theology" is all that can reasonably be expected of them. They are largely without the historical remembrance of their theological roots and often deeply ashamed of their denominational origins-and often with just cause.
Of course, this present pathology will pass. Oden points out that there are increasing signs of a new brand of young, classically oriented Christian thinkers and writers who have survived the darkness of the liberated seminaries. He calls them the "young fogeys" and he has high hopes that, in time, they will lead a new postmodern reformation. It would be a wonderful thing to see, but then, not all of us have that much time left to attend that particular requiem; we'll be awaiting a much more wonderful celebration and I expect Thomas C. Oden will be there also.